About Us

Contact Us


February 17, 2003


What Would Lincoln Do?

By Patrick W. Gavin

One of the men we honor on President’s Day is Abraham Lincoln, our 16th president and a man whose leadership, like our current president’s, was most acutely defined by his wartime leadership. While the Civil War and the current war on terrorism are starkly different conflicts, they do, at the most basic level, share a common storyline: a prosperous, free, and diverse people are threatened by a bitter society angry at the United States and its policies. In both situations, the gravity of the situation (for Lincoln, it was the fracture of his country; for Bush it was the fracture of national security) was daunting, and the solution was similarly uncertain.

As we honor Lincoln on President’s Day, can we draw comparisons between the conflict in Lincoln’s time and our own, and can we perhaps ascertain how Lincoln might have operated in a post-9/11 world?

Both Lincoln and Bush came into the Oval Office with little experience compared to their predecessors: Lincoln had served as a Congressman for only one term and Bush’s political life was limited to six years as governor of Texas. Yet during the first years of their presidency, both leaders were quickly thrust into moments of great enormity.

The conflicts were clearly different in nature: Lincoln was waging an internal war against his Southern countrymen; Bush was waging a complex global campaign against a vague enemy. Both men instantly recognized the awesome challenge that lay ahead. “The occasion is piled high with difficulty,” Lincoln said in 1862. America was “awakened to danger,” Bush asserted, and what was at stake was nothing less than civilization itself.

This challenge would require great sacrifice. Lincoln implored citizens “to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us,” and Bush reminded Americans of their “essential obligations to one another, our country, and to history” and called “upon every American to commit at least two years — or 4,000 hours — of his or her life to service.” Lincoln saw the Civil War as an opportunity to create a “new birth of freedom” and Bush instantly recognized that it was that very freedom which now needed to be defended.

Both presidents concluded that the only way to properly honor those who had died was to continue ahead with the war in hopes of cleansing the earth of its darkest roots. They justified all of their actions — both military actions and issues concerning the restriction of civil liberties — by pointing out the imminent danger that always lay around the corner.

In the course of their conflict, both presidents came under great criticism for their actions. Lincoln faced opposition from the Conservative Peace Democrats and abolitionists, and Bush’s motives have consistently displeased those who fear that his policies are too aggressive, too undefined, and too shortsighted (while also being too far-reaching).

How, then, would Lincoln act were he in Bush’s shoes?

Lincoln might strongly recommend to Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld — who is confident in the United State’s ability to wage several wars at once — to wage only one war at a time (Afghanistan and then Iraq and then North Korea, but not simultaneously).

Because of the Civil War’s domestic nature, it is oftentimes forgotten that there was an enormously significant international component to it as well. The Confederacy was aggressively pursuing support from both Britain and France. Britain had an economic interest in the South’s cotton. France’s Napoleon III was eager to establish Mexican colonies, and a disintegrated United States would only further his ambition. Lincoln, and his Secretary of State William Seward, warned potential Confederate allies that any allegiance to the rebels would ultimately result in conflict with the United States upon the completion of the Civil War. In that sense, Lincoln completely espoused the idea that “You’re either with us, or you’re against us.”

But Lincoln also understood the essential role that allies play in any conflict. European recognition of the Confederacy would have certainly crippled the Union’s war efforts, and it was for this reason that Lincoln dedicated so much of his time to carefully navigating the muddy international waters. He would understand Bush’s need to act unilaterally if necessary, but he would urge him to do whatever he could to secure allies for himself, and at the same time to prevent Saddam’s acquisition of sympathizers.

Lincoln would likely take issue with the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive strikes. In 1848, as a Whig member of the House of Representatives, Lincoln spoke out against President Polk’s decision to enter territory claimed by Mexico, justified by Polk’s claim that he needed to “repel invasion.” Lincoln wrote: “Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such a purpose, and you allow him to make war at his pleasure. [This logic] places our President where kings have always stood.”

Certainly, Lincoln would find nothing wrong with the PATRIOT Act and the Bush Administration’s comfort with civil rights restrictions during a time of war. In his own time, Lincoln found it both appropriate and necessary to suspend habeas corpus, limit freedom of the press, and impose martial law. Between 10,000 and15,000 individuals were incarcerated without a prompt trial during the Civil War. Lincoln would, therefore, find little wrong with our detainment camp in Guantanamo Bay.

Lincoln would support the ongoing blockade of Iraq. Almost immediately following the siege at Ft. Sumter, he issued orders for a naval blockade of the South, in order to prevent communication, transportation, and the movement of supplies. A similar stranglehold on Iraq might achieve the same objective.

Lincoln would urge Bush always to clarify the war’s purpose, and to remind the public of it frequently. Lincoln came under great scrutiny when, upon implementing the nation’s first draft, he allowed individuals to buy their way out of service. It wasn’t long before chants of “Rich Man’s War!” echoed down Pennsylvania Avenue. However, Lincoln’s military and diplomatic efforts were greatly improved when he passed the Emancipation Proclamation, which made it clear to most people (especially European leaders, who now could not, in good conscience, support the Confederacy) that this war was, in fact, about slavery, and not simply about financial or constitutional preferences. In a world skeptical of Bush’s motivations (war for oil? family revenge? elections? economy cover-up? imperialism? empire?), it is essential to his cause that Bush repeat what he believes to be the scope of this conflict: freedom.

Throughout the Civil War, Lincoln faced the difficult task of waging a quick, bloody, and aggressive war against enemies who would become countrymen again when the guns ultimately fell silent. More than anything, he would remind Bush of the increasingly global community in which we live, a community in which barriers and borders are constantly shrinking. When the war is over, he would remind President Bush, the world and all of its religions and countries and peoples, who were recently your enemies, will once again need to sit together at the international roundtable and press on as a group to address the globe’s essential issues.

“George,” Lincoln would say, “wage war with malice towards none and charity for all, so that when you sit down at that table and look at the faces around you, they will want to look back at you.”

“And always, always George, trust that the better angels of our nature will prevail.”

Patrick Gavin (pgavin@pds.org) teaches history at Princeton Day School.